Hidden Figures (2016)

casey This may come as a surprise, but I think the title Hidden Figures might carry a double meaning.

brooke I stand by what I said when we reviewed Moonlight: Janelle Monáe is amazing.

casey She’s so good! And you know what else is good? This movie.

brooke Yes! Hidden Figures is the slightly enhanced true story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three black women who worked as part of a team of computers (no, really, they calculated numbers before automated computers could) at NASA in the heyday of the space race. The movie takes place as Russia has just sent Yuri Gagarin into space, throwing NASA into a flurry of activity, and follows their roles in Project Mercury and John Glenn’s famous orbit around Earth. Each of the three take on difficult tasks in and around NASA’s segregated headquarters at Langley: Katherine crunches figures in an otherwise all white and all male task force, Dorothy learns the new IBM computer programming language and vies for a position as a supervisor, and Mary fights to take night classes at an all-white school so she can become an engineer.

casey I really enjoyed the lead performances: Spencer is charming, Monáe is becoming a breakout actress, and Henson, whose work I was least familiar with, has some strong scenes as the primary lead. Kevin Costner is fine as the gruff good white supervisor (better than he was in Criminal, anyway), and Mahershala Ali, who was great in Moonlight, is also typically charismatic as Katherine’s love interest, ex-soldier Jim Johnson.

brooke Their romance is such a small but enjoyable part of the movie. I loved watching Katherine put Jim in his place during an early scene when he suggests that it’s odd for a woman to be working for NASA. After that, he has to prove that he’s worth her time, probably not what he expected! Katherine’s children and mother also play secondary but important roles, and I love that we see her family chug along responsibly so we (like her) don’t feel like we need to worry about them. Not when there’s a man to put in space!

casey I’ve been thinking about ways Hidden Figures compares with Loving, another film that shares some similar themes and settings. Loving’s struggle is presented as a character study, with the legal battles pushed to the background, while Hidden Figures brings its conflicts right to the front with a quick pace and a more traditional “Hollywood” feel: dramatic speeches, clear symbolism, and so on. Neither is necessarily a better or worse approach, but I think Hidden Figures has obvious ambitions to be a crowd pleasing feel good movie, which it accomplishes.

brooke Of the two, I definitely prefer Figures, in large part because of the brilliant performances and the banter between Spencer, Monáe, and Henson. I think I’d watch any movie with these three.

casey I think in some ways Hidden Figures is more important than it is great, which sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I what I mean is that at its core it’s very conventional, full of familiar story beats. But it also skillfully tells a story most people (including me) probably didn’t know, and it it adds important nuance to a narrative of space exploration that has typically been depicted more like Apollo 13, centering around the astronauts and the men in charge.

brooke This time director Theodore Melfi mostly relegates them background. Other than a handful of people like John Glenn (Glen Powell), royal pain head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and Katherine’s boss Al Harrison (Costner), the guys at NASA are a sea of white collared shirts, pencil protectors, and dark suit pants, which subverts the usual story of white males saving the day.

casey Their homogeneity contrasts with the black women who invade “their” space and solve problems they could not, which itself is a nice commentary the institutional dynamics at play. I had a sense that the movie pulled its punches somewhat, with racism almost reduced to surly individual whites rather than being an insidious, all-consuming societal force, but that’s a tall order for any movie to portray. Hidden Figures mostly achieves what it sets out to do, and even manages to make boring topics like advanced math and computer programming interesting to watch on screen.

brooke I liked the way Melfi includes archival footage, especially scenes of Cape Canaveral launches, as a reminder that we’re watching a performance of things that really happened.

casey Hidden Figures probably won’t make my best of the year list (that’s a teaser, stay tuned!), but I think many people will appreciate it in ways that probably elude me, which is great. It’s still a movie I’d recommend to nearly anybody.

brooke I loved every minute. This will be one I revisit for sure, and everyone should see it–especially young women of color who could really use some amazing role models who looks like them.
Final note: I may or may not have teared up a little when I saw the picture of the real Katherine Johnson with the Hidden Figures poster. If you’re still reading and haven’t seen it yet, what are you doing? Go!


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